In my head I walk those fabled streets,
The Latin Quarter and Champs Élysées,
En route to a salon for noon
To mingle with the artists there,
A German poet, a conducting Jew,
Some scattered novellists, painters two,
A philosopher, long coat worn and frayed –
Like all of us having seen better days –
Nietzsche in one pocket, scraps of paper in the rest,
A response to be submitted to the national press,
And here and there a business man, there for his wit and flair,
And in the hope of patronage for the poor young artists there.
In the evening I imagine
We’d promenade down the Seine,
And hear the bells of Notre Dame,
For Hugo heard the same,
And all the other city bells
Would chime their discordant paean,
To their great Paris, home of the world,
City of culture, of light and joy.
The men would be dressed neatly,
The women in plumes and silks,
With even the lowliest factory girl
In long stockings, a pure white frill
Adorning her bonnet as she springs over the filth
Of horses and the factories
And the million workers of Paris.
At night the University would spread life throughout the town,
As Academies and concert halls spread the latest –
“First Paris, then the world!”
For the telegram from Paris
Sends echoes around a world
That sends back its finest men
To praise Paris – praise and serve.
The hope of every novel, play or symphony
Is the acclaim of this imagined crowd,
But they are gone.
There were the guns of World War One,
The planes of World War Two,
So I can only imagine this intellectual’s paradise –
The Paris I never knew.
With a poem of this length, I feel obliged to offer some sort of explanation of parts of it. The overall idea comes from two years of studying bits of history between 1700 and 1910, where Paris was one of the cultural centres of the world (Along with Vienna. At times other cities – London, Naples, St. Petersburg – had their moments, but Paris and Vienna were constantly a pinnacle). There is this wonderful image of a city that was the intellectual heart of a continent that was at the centre of the globe. All the greatest intellectuals, be they artists, philosophers or statesmen, either lived in or visited Paris. By the fin-de-siécle, Paris was truly a city of wonders – and many other people who had been lured their in the hope of living the dream. One thing that almost all writers of the time agree on is that even after WWI was over, with France victorious and apparently restored, Paris was never the same. The fantasy of Paris that persists to this day was never quite a reality again, despite being a fine place for good deceased Americans.
That said, there were some more short-term inspirations – particularly reading Stefan Zweig’s autobiography, The World of Yesterday, which includes a fine chapter on his pre-WWI experiences in Paris. Additionally I re-listened to The Last Time I Saw Paris recently, which further pushed me to write about this fantasy Paris (Although the song describes pre-WWII Paris, the sentiment is the same – and Paris did indeed suffer a cultural decline after the war, for obvious reasons).
Within the text, other inspirations should be mentioned. The description of promenading in plain air is very influenced by the Impressionist painters – those of you from London should take the chance to see the Courtauld Gallery’s fine collection. Unlike many other London collections, it appears to have mostly been obtained by legitimate means. The philosopher’s coat refers to the opera La Boheme, particularly the ‘Coat Aria‘ in which a student philosopher sings farewell to his coat. In context, it is rather beautiful. There are other references, but these should keep you entertained for now – I hope that you enjoyed my fantasy of Paris. I may decide to make Tuesday a regular ‘historical/long poem’ slot, depending on the reception of this.
The Hapless Neo-Romantic